Are Videophilia and Nature Disconnect Harming Our Health?

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We’re more disconnected from nature than we’ve ever been. While nature was once an inseparable feature from the rest of our lives, it has largely been replaced by our growing addiction to electronic devices—a condition known as “videophilia.” What are the consequences of this shift? How do videophilia and our disconnection from nature impact our health? And how can you help your patients and clients reduce their screen time and reconnect with the wonder and beauty of nature? Read on to find out.

The Rising Epidemics of Videophilia and Nature Deficit Disorder

On an evolutionary time scale, we’ve spent less than 0.01 percent of our history living in modern, urbanized surroundings; more than 99.99 percent of our time has been spent living in harmony with nature. (1) Based on this observation, scientists and anthropologists have proposed that humans have an innate tendency to seek connections with nature and other living beings.

This tendency, known as “biophilia,” is at the core of our humanity. However, a growing body of research indicates that modern-day humans are experiencing a fundamental shift from biophilia to an existence characterized by videophilia, the tendency to focus on sedentary, solitary activities involving electronic media. (2) Recent statistics provide a shocking glimpse of the magnitude of videophilia and nature disconnect in our society:

  • The average American adult spends more than half of his or her day on electronic media. (3)
  • Teens spend nine hours a day and tweens spend six hours a day on electronic media. (4)
  • Children spend approximately three hours per day using electronic devices. (5)
  • A study of nearly 12,000 Americans found that the average adult spends five hours or less in nature per week. (6)
  • The average American child spends an average of 30 minutes of unstructured time outdoors each week. (7)
  • According to the EPA, the average American spends 93 percent of his or her life indoors—87 percent of that time is spent in buildings and 6 percent in automobiles. (8)

The vast amount of time we spend indoors on electronic media is not without consequences. Our increasing dependence on computers, smartphones, tablets, TV, and other forms of electronic media is disconnecting us from the natural environment to which our bodies are best adapted—with harmful consequences for our mental, emotional, and physical health.

The average American adult spends more than half of their day on electronic media, and it’s dramatically affecting our health

The health implications of a lack of nature exposure were first brought into the spotlight by Richard Louv’s 2005 book Last Child in the Woods. In the book, Louv coined the term “nature deficit disorder” to describe the rising epidemic of human disconnect from nature and its effects on children’s behavior. However, we now know that it’s not just kids’ behavior that is affected by disconnection with nature. The overuse of technology has a wide variety of adverse health implications for people of all ages.

Electronic Media Is Undermining Our Health

Time spent watching TV is directly associated with insulin resistance and obesity in both children and adults. (9, 10) Screen time before bed may be especially harmful to children, promoting sleep disruption and a higher BMI. (11) Electronic media use also predicts poor health among teens independent of exercise and eating habits and, disturbingly, has been associated with an increased risk of depression and suicide. (12, 13) Excessive use of social media may be especially harmful to mental health; in fact, frequent Facebook use is associated with decreased happiness and satisfaction in young adults. This research suggests that rather than fulfilling the human need for social connection, Facebook and other forms of electronic media may be undermining our well-being.

Nature Is Necessary for Our Health and Happiness

Just as excessive electronic media use correlates with poor health, so does a lack of time spent outdoors in nature. Increasing urbanization and a lack of nature exposure increase the risk of mental illness, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and stroke. (14, 15, 16, 17) Excessive time spent indoors has even been found to promote myopia in children. (18) This research indicates that disconnect from the natural environment has profound effects on human health.

Nature disconnect affects not only human health but also the well-being of our planet. Researchers have found that a preoccupation with the virtual world decreases curiosity, respect, and concern for the natural world. (19) By drawing people away from the natural world, videophilia may negatively influence attitudes toward the environment and decrease conservation activism, perpetuating a vicious cycle of environmental degradation. Ultimately, this will come back to haunt us in the form of an increasingly toxic environment that poses severe risks to our health and the well-being of future generations.

While a lack of nature exposure has serious adverse health consequences, access to the natural world is associated with numerous favorable health outcomes.   

  • Outdoor exercise improves blood pressure and mood in children. (20)
  • The use of urban green spaces is linked to better cardiovascular health in adults. (21)
  • Residential green space is associated with increased physical activity and reduced obesity in women. (22)
  • Increased amounts of “green space” in residential areas promote better birth outcomes. (23)
  • Increasing the amount of greenery in neighborhoods helps prevent chronic health conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, and high cholesterol. (24)
  • “Forest bathing,” the act of simply spending time in a forest, lowers salivary cortisol levels, increases heart rate variability and parasympathetic nervous system activity, and reduces blood pressure and pulse rate. These findings indicate that nature exposure induces a profound state of relaxation. (25)
  • “Forest bathing” also lowers blood glucose in diabetic patients, indicating that nature exposure beneficially impacts insulin sensitivity and blood glucose homeostasis. (26)
  • Spending time in nature boosts weakened immune functions by raising natural killer (NK) cell activity. One of the crucial functions of NK cells is to protect against cancer; this suggests that nature exposure may induce anti-cancer activity in the body. (27)
  • Exposure to nature lowers stress and increases positive emotions, attention capacity, and cognitive function. (28)

Unplug from Technology and Recharge in Nature

Given the harmful effects of videophilia and the positive impact of connecting with nature, these topics should always be part of the discussion between healthcare practitioners and our patients and clients. Here are a few suggestions for helping people to create a healthier relationship with technology:

  • Turn off or drastically reduce smartphone notifications. By default, our phones are “interruption devices” that notify us constantly throughout the day, often about trivial or insignificant events (like a new Tweet or Facebook post). Turning off all non-essential notifications can reduce the amount of time spent on these devices and enable more time for focus and relaxation.
  • Use an app that monitors smartphone usage, such as QualityTime for Android or Moment for iOS. These apps track the amount of time users spend on their smartphones. Using the app can be a shocking and eye-opening experience, as many people are not aware of just how much time they spend on their smartphones every day. In addition to tracking phone usage, the apps allow users to set custom usage alerts to manage how much time they spend on their devices. The apps can even be used to set a lock-screen mode for specific periods of time, to prevent users from logging into their devices.
  • Set up “phone-free” periods every day. Suggest that patients aim for several hours of phone-free time every day. They may be surprised by how relaxed they feel when allowed to detach from their devices completely!
  • Discourage patients from using their phones as alarm clocks. Using a smartphone as an alarm clock exposes the eyes to blue light at night, which disrupts circadian rhythms and has many adverse downstream effects on our health. Waking up with a smartphone within reach also makes people more likely to obsessively check their phone and spend time on social media first thing in the morning.

In addition to helping patients set technology limits, we should encourage our patients to get out into nature. Taking weekend trips to national parks and state parks, camping, biking, hiking, planting a garden, and taking walks at local parks are just a few ways patients can increase their exposure to nature and reap the health benefits that the great outdoors has to offer.